Coronavirus fears mean £53million eel smuggler will be spared jail

Seafood trader, 67, who smuggled £53million of rare baby eels from UK to the Far East avoids jail after court hears he could catch coronavirus behind bars

  • Gilbert Khoo, 67, smuggled millions of baby elver eels to the Far East 
  • Border Force found 600,000 of the critically endangered species 
  • Most of the rare baby eels were dead, the rest were released back into the wild 
  • Pensioner’s vulnerability to catching coronavirus has seen him spared jail

A pensioner behind a £53million smuggling ring has been spared jail as his lawyer claims he is vulnerable to the coronavirus.

Gilbert Khoo, 67, made a fortune smuggling critically endangered elver eels from a barn in Gloucestershire to the Far East.

Khoo would import the live baby eels from Spain, hide them under hauls of chilled fish in the UK and ship them off to the Hong Kong and Malaysia via Heathrow. 

Gilbert Khoo, 67, smuggled millions of of critically endangered elver eels from the UK to the Far East. But he has been spared jail in light of the coronavirus outbreak

Border Force caught wind of the £53million operation when they opened a package bound for Hong Kong containing 600,000 elver eels in February 2017.

Most of the rare baby eels had died, while the remaining 290,000 were released back into the wild in Spain.

The critically endangered European glass eels were bound for Malaysia and Hong Kong, where they are a culinary delicacy. 

Last month he was found guilty of six offences relating to the smuggling operation, which had made Khoo a fortune, the court heard.

But his lawyers have successfully argued he should not be sent to prison.

His barrister Martin Hicks told Southwark Crown Court: ‘His age and underlying health concerns makes him vulnerable in light of the current coronavirus concerns.’

Border Force officials found 600,000 elver eels, most of which were dead, concealed in a package at Heathrow that was bound for Hong Kong. Khoo, 67, said he was unaware of the shipment when questioned

The pensioner from Chessington in Surrey bowed his head as he was let off with a two-year suspended sentence and ordered to carry out unpaid work.  

Prosecutor Peter Glenser QC told the court the operation had been running from an illegal elver station in a Gloucestershire barn and had made Khoo a fortune. 

The European eels, also known as Anguilla Anguilla, are a species on the brink of extinction, expert Andrew Kerr from the Sustainable Eel Group told the court earlier.

The court heard the total value of the exports was £53,365,000.

Mr Glenser said: ‘This is a case about the illegal trade in a critically endangered species, the European eel.

‘Gilbert Khoo is a wholesale trader in endangered eels and that, his trade, is illegal.

‘We say he can be shown to have engaged in this illegal trading between 2015 and 2017.

‘He was responsible for importing eels into the United Kingdom without notifying the relevant authorities, which is an offence, and was also concerned in their illegal export, for profit.

‘European eels are subject to an extremely high risk of extinction.

The National Crime Agency launched an investigation into Khoo’s smuggling ring following Border Force’s discovery. These boxes of elver eels were hidden underneath packages of fish

‘No legal trade into or from the European Union is possible for such eels.

‘Mr Khoo was using the unauthorised elver station in Gloucestershire to accommodate live eels imported from the EU.

‘He would arrange for them to be repackaged there and then be exported to Asia soon thereafter labelled as, and hidden underneath, chilled fish.’

Khoo claimed the eels were either stored in a freezer or kept fresh to sell to local restaurants.

When asked about the Hong Kong bound shipment Border Force had uncovered, Khoo stated he was not aware of it.

Despite masterminding a multi-million smuggling operation, Khoo’s defence team said he did not live a millionaire’s life.

Mr Hicks said: ‘This is now a 67-year-old man. He is a family man. There’s no lavish lifestyle.

Prosecutors say the overall worth of the captured elver eels was more than £53million. But he has been spared jail amid concerns for his health

‘He is not in good health.

‘The reports identify he has had surgery for prostate cancer in the past but more significantly perhaps was the health scare he had in relation to a hole in the heart.’

The court also heard Khoo is under the guidance of a stroke clinic.  

Judge Jeffrey Pegden told Khoo he played a ‘leading role’ in the international smuggling operation: ‘There were 14 completed consignments of glass eels going out of the EU and two attempted consignments going out in 2017.

Gilbert Khoo, 67, was spared jail after his solicitor explained a series of health problems the pensioner had endured 

‘As to value it is difficult to be precise but in my judgment the value of eels exported must at least have been in the low millions and the personal gain to you must at least have been in the tens of thousands of pounds.

‘It is impossible to be precise but those figures may be clarified.

‘Glass eels are not threatened with imminent extinction but with extinction unless the trade is closely controlled.

‘There is no doubt at all that your actions had significant environmental impact on the European eels, which has a life cycle of 30 years and upon the female of the species returning to their spawning ground they carry millions of eggs, so whatever the precise quantity was actually exported by your 14 consignments it can only have had a significant environmental impact.

‘I am of the view you played a leading role in this country in what was a large commercial operation driven by other purchasers abroad where the desire for the glass eel was abundant.

‘Your activity was quite plainly driven by money. Moreover sophisticated techniques were used to avoid detection notably the concealing of the eels below fish and the use of false commodity codes which indicated dead mixed fix as well as the use of the wrong company turnover and the use of different companies.

‘Moreover, I am certain you knew of the ban on exporting from 2014 because you were told so and in any event you had an expertise in the fish market generally.

‘The issue I have pondered over long and hard is whether any custody can be suspended. I have just come to conclusion that because of your age and health difficulties it can be suspended for a period of two years.’

Khoo denied but was convicted of three counts of failure to notify movement of animals between member states and three counts of evasion of a prohibition or restriction on the export of goods.

He was sentenced to two years imprisonment suspended for two years and ordered to carry out 240 hours of unpaid work.

Confiscation proceedings will be heard at a later date to recover the money he made.

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